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The Gap/Don Fisher Protest

by Tom Gorman Saturday, Oct. 21, 2000 at 7:12 AM

The Gap/Don Fisher Protest--not covered by the major media--what a suprise!

The following was the only article on the protest I could find on the Lexis-Nexis database. Why not send them a note thanking them for their coverage? Send e-mail to enquiries@scotsman.com

Copyright 2000 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.

The Scotsman

October 13, 2000, Friday


LENGTH: 795 words


BYLINE: Eddie Gibb Reports


At a fund-raising dinner in a swanky Beverly Hills hotel next week, Gap chairman Donald Fisher will receive an award for his work for deprived children in the US. These days it's not enough to sell clothes; you have to be seen to do it ethically. But before Fisher can receive the award, he

will have to fight his way through a demonstration by human rights groups. "The Fishers have reaped this fortune on the backs of sweatshop workers, including child labour," says a statement from Sweatshopwatch, which is organising the protest.

Gap is one of the biggest brands in the world, which also makes it one of the biggest targets. And it's not just anti-capitalism protesters who are questioning the way the company does business in the developing world. An investigation by BBC's Panorama has uncovered evidence of child labour in a garment factory used by Gap, and also by Nike, another target for the kind of anti-globalisation sentiments expressed in Seattle and Prague.

The power of these global brands allows companies like Gap and Nike to sell their chinos and sports shoes throughout the developed world, but the perception that this is at the expense of poorly-paid workers could take the shine off their carefully burnished image.

These attacks have been described as "brand ju-jitsu", where the might of a powerful opponent is used against him, and this vulnerability has been exploited by anti-globalisation campaigners. You can't see capital, so a branch of McDonald's or a Niketown store provides a useful target for protest.

The growing distrust of brand-names has found a spokeswoman in Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, whose book, No Logo, offers a coherent analysis of the way companies can use cheap labour in the developing world while spending billions on the creation of the all-important image in

western consumer markets.

"Activists are pelting the facade of the brand with the reality of production and it is proving an explosive formula," she says. "What (the companies) seem to do is improve standards in onerelatively small area of their operation and then brag about it, hoping that we will assume that these improvements have been applied across the board."

When a news organisation such as the BBC gets in on the act, corporations have every reason to get worried. Is it too cynical to suggest that this is why Gap is pumping millions of dollars into community projects? Perhaps, but whatever the primary motivation for this philanthropic gesture, it is certain that such good deeds will be incorporated into the company's brand image. Marketers

used to talk about brands having a "personality"; now they need to acquire a morality.

"These companies realise it's extremely important," says Rita Clifton, head of leading brands consultancy, Interbrand. "The risk in this day of lightning communications is that people can make mischief. Brands are more vulnerable than they have ever been before."

In the wake of Nike's discomfort over previous allegations that it was using sweatshop labour, its arch rival Reebok has tried to position itself as the "ethical" sportswear company. Like Gap, it went down the sponsorship route and audaciously backed a human rights award.

"We have a deep-felt commitment to operate in a socially responsible way and we stand for human rights throughout the world," trumpets the company's website. In the past they have even worked with Amnesty International as sponsors of music events. This is a clear example of

morality being incorporated as part of a brand. Starbucks does much the same thing by switching to fairly-traded coffee and cultivating a caring, eco-friendly image in its marketing.

The increasing power of multinational corporations and the way they communicate their message to consumers is the subject of a major new research project at Stirling University. "One of the things we are interested in is the way companies respond to challenges to their reputations," says David Miller of the film and media department. Miller accepts the argument that it is in a company's business interest to avoid damage to their brand through association with sweatshop labour, but doesn't believe that will be enough to force them to clean up their act. "There is a more compelling business case for finding cheaper suppliers," he adds. "These codes of practice are set up for PR reasons."

Building powerful brands is what companies such as Gap and Nike excel at and it would be strange if they did not use these skills to give consumers back the feelgood factor with a bit of subtly marketed morality. We've had the Reebok human rights award. What next - a prisoner-of-conscience cappuccino from Starbucks?

Panorama, Sunday, BBC1, 10: 15pm.

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